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In Retrospect: Tonight Alive’s ‘What Are You So Scared Of?’

You could cop a far worse hand than growing up as a music fan in the leafy suburbs of Northern Sydney’s sprawling Hills District in the ’00s. 

On the weekends, one could take any number of bush trails or biking tracks to the local Westfield for some browsing in JB Hi-Fi, with local shows at skateparks and youth centres never more than a stone’s throw away.

Soundwave was the annual yearly pilgrimage (followed of course by a stop-over at either Showground Road or Thornleigh Macca’s to thrash out which bands had the best set of the day over a $1 Frozen Coke), with rest of the year taken up by train rides to the Hordern Pavilion or the UNSW Roundhouse, trips to local festivals such as Shorefest and Big Exo Day, and the occasional headline show from Northlane, Prepared Like A Bride or Thy Art Is Murder at Blacktown Masonic Hall – or Yo-Yos Youth Centre on the Northern Beaches, for those who bothered to catch five buses for a spin-kick to the groin during a Shinto Katana breakdown.

Put simply, it was a Disney-esque suburban heaven, full of teenagers cramming into local garages and pumping out their favourite Simple Plan and Panic! At The Disco covers, before watching the Parkway Drive DVD for the 15th time and dreaming of one day punk-jumping their way to the Vans Warped Tour.

It was in this world – in the suburb of Castle Hill in 2008 – that Jenna McDougall, Jake Hardy, Cameron Adler and Whakaio Taahi formed Tonight Alive. Barely three years later in 2011, after a handful of support slots and local hype, the group found themselves walking out of high school and catching a plane to California to cut their first LP, What Are You So Scared Of?, at the invitation of Mark Trombina (Blink 182, All Time Low).

With that debut album now celebrating its tenth birthday, it feels that – contrary to the popular tagline of these retrospective articles – Tonight Alive are still only beginning to find their footing in the international music consciousness; one which is increasingly teetering on a pop-punk revival thanks to the likes of mainstream stars Machine Gun Kelly, Olivia Rodrigo and more swapping synths for six-strings on their Top 40 hits.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the release of 2018’s Underworld that Tonight Alive started gaining broader media support at home, with national youth broadcaster Triple J finally playlisting the band’s music on their primetime programs. It was a move that felt somewhat overdue, given the likes of Mark Hoppus and Corey Taylor had already given the band their endorsements via features on various tunes (not to mention their own established fandom overseas).

Having taken a break from live appearances in 2019, on the cusp of the international shutdowns as a result of the ongoing global pandemic, it’s been some time since we’ve heard from Tonight Alive – but their impact on the Australian music scene is undeniable, thanks in no small part to the groundwork laid on What Are You So Scared Of?

Sonically, there’s nothing out of the ordinary on this record. Paying dues to the new wave of American pop-punk, tracks like ‘Breaking And Entering’ and ‘Fake It’ gel with the perfect combination of youthful angst and catchiness that acts like New Found Glory and All Time Low had themselves mastered. What Are You So Scared Of? makes no attempt to reinvent the musical wheel, or offer anything distinctly unique – it was the fundamentals done well, and that was all their fans were after.

The record saw the band quickly jump from opening for the likes of Anberlin to national headliners and international journeys – a huge feat for an Australian band on their first record, and a testament to the power of a damn good chorus.

Australia certainly had their fair share of skinny jean-wearing string-slingers making waves on the stage throughout the ’00s – from the mainstream darlings of Kisschasy, Gyroscope and Short Stack, to the more indie cool-boy groups Red Riders, The Hot Lies and The Vines. That said, McDougall’s immense talent for catchy melodies, blistering performances and earnest lyricism struck a far deeper chord with fans around the country – and indeed the world – offering a local answer to the sun-soaked West Coast pop-punk that was so beloved.

Acts like Stand Atlantic, Yours Truly, Eat Your Heart Out and Stateside are just some of the groups to emerge in the wake of Tonight Alive’s success, some of whom have themselves become firm staples on popular radio. And while many of those acts have their own broad range of influences, it’s hard not to draw a connection between the national (and indeed worldwide) success of What Are You So Scared Of?, and the subsequent pop-punk explosion a decade later.

Since What Are You So Scared Of? dropped, Tonight Alive have grown substantially, both at a sonic and critical level, becoming bonafide hometown heroes and festival favourites, while scoring an overseas record deal with US legends Hopeless Records. Ten years on however, and it’s hard to listen to these 12 pop-punk anthems and not be caught up in late-’00s nostalgia, nor be impressed by the band’s ability to crank out a dozen earworms perfectly curated for moshlords and emos in equal measure.

As the band themselves have proved, though, change is nothing to be scared of – and with Tonight Alive more popular than ever, who knows who they might inspire over the next decade.

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